Will India's high youth joblessness impact election outcome?

How the 215.8 million under 30 might vote in the seven-phase election would be a compelling trend to watch.

Mayank Chhaya Mar 17, 2024
Representational Photo

The number of under-30 electors in India alone is bigger than any other country worldwide. With over 215.8 million eligible voters in that demographic—197.4 million in the age group 20-29 and 18.4 million in the age group 18-19—India tops Indonesia, the third largest democracy in the world.

Of course, with the total eligible electors numbering nearly 969 million (968.8 million), there is not a country on the planet that has any prospect of matching the distinction of its mammoth electoral heft.

Interestingly, the country’s electorate is larger than the next seven large democracies combined at 858 million. The seven are Indonesia, 204 million, the United States, 168 million, Pakistan 128 million, Bangladesh, 119 million, Russia, 114 million, Mexico, 98 million and South Africa, 27 million.

Seventy-two million new voters have been added to the rolls since the last general election in 2019.

Spread over 82 days from April 19 until June 1, with the results scheduled to be announced on June 4, the elections will decide whether the widely favoured Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pull off a hattrick or the significantly diminished and fragmented opposition makes a comeback.

High unemployment

As is the case generally with the Indian electorate, it is hazardous to predict how those under 30 might vote but given their massive number of 215.8 million at least on paper they represent a potentially decisive constituency. Perhaps the biggest issue governing this constituency’s political preferences is high unemployment.

According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a leading business information company, the unemployment rate among those aged 15 years and above, was 8.7 per cent in December 2023. That represented a decline of 0.2 percent over November 2023. Experts regard this level of unemployment as “fairly high”.

An anecdotal assessment of this demographic’s mood based on social media sentiments reveals considerable disaffection and derision about how the Modi government has handled the unemployment crisis. Despite having promised 20 million jobs every year in 2014 when the Modi-led BJP first won, the actual numbers have been abysmally low. By the measure of the promise by now 200 million jobs should have been created virtually wiping out any employment. The unemployment number of 31 million as of 2018, as claimed by the government, is considered seriously misleading by many who track the situation on the ground.

How the 215.8 million under 30 might vote in the seven-phase election would be a compelling trend to watch.

Irrespective of the precise number of unemployment there is consensus that the rate is unhealthily high for a country that aspires to become a $5 trillion economy in the next three years and $7 trillion by 2030. Unemployment numbers are deeply worrisome unless jobless growth becomes the governing wisdom of the ruling classes.

Anger at joblessness

An informal series of conversations with those under 30 by this writer in Ahmedabad, the principal city in Gujarat -  where Modi was the chief minister for three consecutive terms before he became prime minister in 2014 - the so far unassailable bastion of the BJP, revealed a measure of disaffection. Considering that the almost reflexive preference for the youth of the city is doing their own business, it was surprising to come across the level of dismay and even anger at the joblessness in the city.

Going by the life expectancy of 70 years in India, this demographic has a good four decades ahead of them to ensure a reasonably prosperous future. Whether they see merit in returning Prime Minister Modi to power for the third time notwithstanding his less-than-impressive jobs record would be one important indicator to watch.

(The writer, a Chicago-based journalist, author and filmmaker, is on a visit to India. Views are personal)

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